On Thursday and Friday of this week, world leaders in sustainable development will convene at Columbia’s Earth Institute for a key meeting of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. We at Columbia are privileged to host the SDSN, and know that students throughout the University can play a key role in supporting its work. The SDSN aims to be a critical support to the world community to help make breakthroughs on complicated and unsolved problems, ranging from extreme poverty to climate change.
The core idea of sustainable development is that our society’s ills need a holistic approach, both to understand the problems and to design solutions. As a field of study, such as in Columbia’s undergraduate major, sustainable development means the integrated understanding of the complex systems of the economy, society (including social networks of families, communities, and workplaces), and the physical environment. As an ethical approach, sustainable development aims at three interconnected goals: economic development (including the end of poverty), social inclusion (including the end of gender and ethnic discrimination, and real economic opportunity for all), and environmental sustainability, especially to address dire threats such as human-induced climate change and species extinction.
This is a tall order. It’s complicated intellectually (which makes it so exciting and worthwhile). It’s complicated ethically, because sustainable development forces us to think about the meaning of a “good society”—not just in terms of economic progress but also in terms of social cohesion, trust, community, responsibility to other species, and the wellbeing of future generations. Sometimes we can barely focus past the next election. Yet we need to focus on 2050 or 2100 as well if we are to solve the looming crises of the natural environment.
The SDSN is a new global network that aims to support the problem-solving needed everywhere. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon created the network last year and honored me by asking me to help establish and lead it. The purpose of the SDSN is to help the UN as a whole, its 193 member states, and thousands of cities around the world to face the pressing challenges of sustainable development.
Think about New York City’s own problems. We are the world’s global meeting place and a city of incomparable dynamism. Yet we are also a city riven by extreme inequalities of income and wealth, crises in public schools, and very serious environmental threats, which were exposed by the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy. Mayor Bloomberg recently put forward a flood-control plan that would cost an estimated $20 billion, and even that plan is not comprehensive. Clearly, sustainable development in New York is multifaceted, long-term, economically complex, and in urgent need of rigorous analysis and policy ideas.
That situation applies throughout the world. Regions, nations, and cities all face the daunting challenges of a rising global population (now 7.2 billion, and possibly rising to beyond 10 billion by 2100), human-induced climate change, huge inequalities of income, high youth unemployment, and governments that do not know how to address these multifaceted challenges. Yet at the same time, we have the feeling that breakthroughs in information technology, agronomy, nanotechnology, genomics, and other fields offer unprecedented ways to improve human wellbeing at lower cost to the planet.
The SDSN aims to unlock those new solutions in a way consistent with new global networking, crowd-sourcing, and open-source problem-solving. The SDSN is engaged in creating a system of universities, think tanks, NGOs, and cutting-edge businesses in all parts of the world that will work with national, regional, and local governments to take on these complicated challenges. Dozens of universities have already joined in recent months. With the launches of SDSN chapters in South America, Southeast Asia, South Korea, Ethiopia, the West African Sahel, and more, we expect the network to include hundreds, if not thousands, of educational and research institutions very soon.
The SDSN issued its first report to Secretary-General Ban this past June on recommendations for a new set of Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 period. The concept of SDGs were proposed by the UN member states at the Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development in June 2012 and are now being negotiated. The SDSN is helping that process. We hope and expect that by 2015, the SDGs will be adopted and help guide the world during the next development period, presumably 2016-2030.
The Earth Institute will be launching many ways for students to become engaged with the SDSN in the coming years, including internships, travel, and classes. Stay tuned and get involved. Sustainable development will likely constitute the crucial framework for social problem solving in the years ahead. The challenges are enormous—and the ability to improve human wellbeing is unprecedented.
Jeffrey Sachs is the director of Columbia's Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and professor of health policy and management.
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